Santa Ana artist shares her family’s story in exhibit co-created by bees
Alicia Rojas has always been drawn to bees.
The winged workers were the mascot of the Catholic school she attended in Colombia, a symbol for the belief system of the community and a major pillar of the school’s teaching.
“In my school at that time, the bee symbolized the matriarchy; it also symbolized the hand of God,” said Rojas. “It symbolized the common purpose of coming together beyond your own individual purpose.”
The Santa Ana-based artist and activist sees parallels between the bees’ human-forced migration and life of service and her family, which fled Colombia and came to the U.S. in the late 1980s.
“I am trying to draw a line between nature and humans and the synchronicity and similarities of forced migration, inspired by my own family’s story coming in to Orange County over 30 years ago,” said Rojas. “I believe the bees, like migrants, don’t deviate from their purpose, regardless of where they land.”
When we think about bees, we typically call to mind honey, pollination and maybe the way the work they do feeds us.
“But we don’t think about what they have to go through sometimes in order to travel to some of these agriculture spaces,” said Rojas.
Rojas’ current installation, “With Honey in the Mouth — Con Miel en la Boca,” at Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana was inspired by these connections.
The exhibit, partially supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, is the result of a two-year artist-in-residence that began with a trip back to Colombia to reconnect with Rojas’ childhood school and to meet with beekeeper Don Oscar Castelblanco in San Agustin, who keeps hives in the Andes Mountains.
“He showed me this beeswax he was selling, and I was like that looks like I can sculpt from that,” said Rojas.
The subsequent beeswax sculptures are on display in the show, formed in collaboration with eight active bee colonies placed in Rojas’ Santa Ana backyard.
The sculptures are like open flowers, with honeycomb formed by Rojas’ bees decorating the edges of the petals like jewels. Positioned on light-boxes, the sculptures are illuminated from below, lighting up all the hexagonal crevices that still smell faintly of honey.
“Con Miel en la Boca” also incorporates photography and video shot in Santa Ana and Colombia with assistance from local filmmaker and photographer SteadyJenny.
“It was important for me to document how this was going to come about,” Rojas said.
Two screens show footage of the bees working together on Rojas’ sculptures, buzzing steadily around the hives in her backyard while photos on an opposite wall depict hives perched on mountains in Colombia. There is also a shot of Rojas in a beekeeper suit tending to her own bees at home, a practice she learned with help from Orange County beekeeper Alejandro Soto of the Bee Army.
The installation includes personal oral history with audio recordings of Rojas’ family telling the story of their immigration, playing over the hum of buzzing bees and sound work composed by Rojas’ son, musician Gabriel Lopez Rojas.
The stories told by her family are sweet, but like honey, can get sticky, and Rojas admits that at first her family was reluctant to share them.
“What I tried to do was create a safe uplifting storytelling process,” said Rojas. “It took a lot of conversations to even get there.”
Told in Spanish, family members talk about what it was like for them when they first left Colombia and went to Mexico before arriving in the U.S., working morning until night to make a home in a new land.
Gabriel Lopez Rojas’ music, played on clarinet, sax and flute, helps to break up the heavy tone of some of the stories, a reprise in a song that hums as deeply and as steadily as the hives buzz.
“His piece releases some of the tension,” Rojas said.
“Con Miel en la Boca” is Rojas’ first collaboration with her son, and in many ways a continuation of her family’s story, which is built on matriarchs working hard for their children.
“My son is first generation, and I am so incredibly proud because he is also part of this process, he is listening to these stories, he is contributing,” said Rojas.
The installation, on display until Sept. 10 is a way for Rojas to highlight the resilience of those determined to survive, wherever they land.
“It is just a beautiful line between nature and humans.”
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